The Silent White Guy and Invisible Black Women

A record number of people read the post yesterday “Beyonce and the Bigger Question”. I want to thank everyone who commented on the blog, FaceBook and Twitter for making the conversation so fruitful and constructive.  It is a difficult question and we certainly have an issue with race in our society. beyonce-super-bowl1

I am also glad that people seemed to like the idea of Critical Theory and the structure of the questions that I put forward.

 I did notice 2 places where the conversation trickled to an drip. 

  • One is the issue of what white guys are allowed to talk about.
  • Two is the way to talk about the role of black women in our society without picking on Beyonce.

Let me give those some background:

My friend Hollie Baker-Lutz tweeted yesterday a sentiment that I hear quite frequently

“Uh oh, overheard in the university cafe: “and I can’t say anything in that class cuz I’m a white male, which is the worst thing u can be.”

I get this all the time from guys young and old alike.  I think something may be missing from that equation however.
Here are two things it would be helpful to add to the mix:

  1. an acknowledgement that the world is changing.
  2. a familiarity of the word hegemony.

If you add those 2 things, it has been my experience that people are generally open to hear what you have to say. People are quite interested.

What they are not interested in is the hegemonic refrain.  See, here is the problem: because that is the dominant cultural narrative … they have already heard it. They know it well. They may know it better than you because they have had to deal with it –  whereas you have only assumed it and benefited uncritically from it.

 

The second issue came from my friend Janisha when she wrote in response to yesterday’s post:

I appreciate your article and your attempt to think deeply. I don’t think anyone except for black women can truly determine what are primary and secondary issues.
The place of black women in society as a primary issue has with it endless complications, including “taking back one’s physicality in the face of generations of oppression and marginalization.”
My place in this culture is directly linked to taking back my physicality, because my black womanhood is my physicality. They aren’t different. they cannot be separated. I will argue again, that this conversation is difficult to have unless you are a black woman, because who else can fully understand the implications of Beyonce?

MP responded: 

I get what you (Janisha) are saying about the black woman conversation and I don’t want to butt into it, white man that I am. But that conversation would be about actual black womanhood, whereas this one is about public spectacle, one created and much enjoyed by white men. So there’s a white man conversation to be had about why we (white men) have created a category of “black women” who occupy this particular place in our spectacle. 

… Bo, I wonder how to tackle the issue of “what place black women hold in our culture” without picking apart actual cases like Beyonce’s half-time show??

 

MP makes 2 excellent points!  

- The first situation I would compare to ‘reader response’ approaches to text. We have the author-text-reader.
In this case we have Beyonce-Performance-Viewer.

So each of us viewers is related to the performance differently so ‘white men’ and ‘black women’ may be relating to the performance differently.

- In the second I just think that we need to be VERY clear the difference between an example and an anecdote.  Focusing in one example can be illustrative or it can be problematic.

I would hesitate to use this performance by Beyonce as an example – she is not the only one who dances like this. Lots of performers do. Also white women (like Christina and Britney) do.   So it is not unprecedented.

NFL Cheerleading squads do many of the same moves in much the same outfits … the difference is that
A) they don’t have a microphone  and
B) we don’t know their name.

Which is a HUGE difference.
If we want to talk about male sexuality and football we should have the Cheerleader conversation. That is every team – every week.  Women walking

If we want to have the ‘place that black women hold in our society’ conversation, then we would ask a different set of questions. Like ‘where were the other black women during the 5 hour broadcast of America’s largest TV event of the year?’  Since it is a commercial event … maybe we would even take a look at the commercials and ask how black women were represented.

Either way – isolating the one performance by Beyonce is not our best starting point.

 

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13 comments
willhouk
willhouk like.author.displayName 1 Like

I have a couple of thoughts.

 

1) Janisha, I understand the point you are making, and I appreciate it. One criticism of the "emergent" movement is that it is far too white and male. Shane Claiborne points out that all you need to start an emergent church is some young white guys, some candles, and a copy of The Matrix. There was good discussion about this at the Wild Goose Festival. My friend Austin who does ministry in South Central said he felt uncomfortable being around so many white people. So, this is an issue worth consideration. White males tend to dominate things even when they don't mean to.

 

2) On the other hand I think excluding white males is counter-productive. If you look at any great social movement in American history you see collaboration. Whether it's the Abolition movement, Women's suffrage, the Civil Rights struggle, there is always participation of marginalized groups along with people from the dominant culture. I think this is neccessary and propper, because people in the dominant culture sometimes want change and justice. On top of that the people who hold the positions of power in the dominant culture are the ones who are going to bring about the actual change. Women needed male Senators to vote for the 19th Ammendment. Civil Rights workers needed white politicians to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So I appreciate the need for black women to have this disscussion amongst themselves but I think people from the dominant culture can and should be a part of the conversation too. I don't mean this to sound like "you people need us" in any way, and my historical examples were just to show how this collaboration has worked in the past. But I think the "big tent" approach is the best way. 

JanishaGabriel
JanishaGabriel

 @willhouk 

Hi Willhouk,

 

thanks for your comment!

 

1) yes...the implications of racial hierarchy on social movements organized around non-racial issues must be addressed constantly.  i read a discussion on Sojourners about the new Monastic movement.  the author of one article was a black woman, who wrote about new monasticism, when led primarily by white people, can contribute to white privilege and white supremacy, i.e. it feeds into the "white savior" mentality.  she pointed out that she and her husband had adopted a black baby born to an impoverished mother, who had specifically chosen then because they could provide him with economic resources she couldn't.  the author was asking the question: how is it beneficial for me, a black woman, to live here (i.e. the hood).  class issues aside, she has a very valid point.

 

2) i agree, as long as the conversation is led by the marginalized group.  i think when it comes to race, it is beneficial for white people to consider themselves as allies, not leaders in this fight...how can you assist poc in THEIR fight for freedom?  as we have discussed whiteness=power, the unconscious need for power can manifest itself in even the most well intending people, as you mentioned in point 1.  when you understand yourself to be an ally, you are in essence waiting to take direction, and then you go about your business working on behalf of the marginalized group...the civil rights movement and suffrage movement were initiated by poc and women respectively, with whites and men joining to help, but not lead.  i can hear your heart, and from these paragraphs can see that you crave change too. :-)

 

 i do emphasize separate conversations not just for theory though.  poc, and in this case, black women, still need safe and "segregated" spaces for ourselves, for emotional value.  the racial  and gender disparities in this country do not just affect my ability to establish self-agency or secure employment, education, etc, they impact my psychological health, and ultimately my self-image.  racism and sexism contribute to depression, and i deal with this constantly.  a child growing up in an abusive home, who isn't allowed to go to school, is starved, and constantly emotionally battered needs inner healing.  sadly, as women of color in a racist, sexist country, we are emotionally battered daily.  

 

i'm 32, have a master's degree and a long professional resume, but when i walk into a room of only white people, i admit that i am immediately nervous: will they make fun of me? laugh at my hair? make racist comments?  will i be able to speak openly? will i be silenced?  the answer is often yes to all of the above.  

on that note, here is an episode from a documentary webseries on queer (lgbt) people of color, discussing employment discrimination...it is about the ways that homophobia, transphobia, and racism interact, but,  watch the pain: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ee_Bz8NX1tY  this video itself is healing, just because it exists.

 

:-)

dangarvin
dangarvin like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

So I'm a white guy pushing 50 (does that make me an old white guy?) who always thought he was very progressive on issues of race, gender and so forth. It has been a very common experience when I am talking with black coworkers or friends about such things that they will look at me like I am speaking another language. They aren't ridiculing or despising me, it is just obvious, in retrospect, that even though I may not be a "racist" in their eyes I am speaking of things for which I have no frame of reference and they can't, even if they wanted to, move me from the category of observer to the category of one who experiences.

 

The interesting thing is that it is when I am speaking that a barrier exists between us. When I shut up and listen the barrier begins to come down. Maybe at some point, after I have listened long enough, I will find that we have gained a common voice. I have not yet listened long enough.

danhauge
danhauge like.author.displayName 1 Like

 @dangarvin

Beautiful, dan. In my own working out of this issue, and having conversations with friends who are people of color, the single most important thing I have learned is the discipline of biting my tongue: when my friends say something that doesn't jibe with my perspective, or sounds too 'harsh', that's when I need to try the hardest to shut up and listen, realizing that my perspective comes from a real lack of experiential knowledge (and also comes with a whole different level of power baggage)

Jesse Turri
Jesse Turri like.author.displayName 1 Like

Bo,

 

The episode before you were on, Doug Pagitt interviewed Candi Dugas on his show. They talked about her book "Who Told You That You Were Naked: Black Women Reclaiming Sexual & Spiritual Goodness."

 

She had some amazing insights into the efforts of black women attempting to reconcile sexual and spiritual goodness, and the effort to do so has roots in the larger issues of church-condoned gender hierarchy, Christianity’s hierarchal dualism, and American race-based oppression and injustice.

 

It's a really good chat, check it out if you haven't already. It's certainly relevant to this conversation anyway.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @pluralform Holy Guacamole - I had downloaded that when it first came out but had not listened to it.   THAT was amazing.  She said some deeply powerful things.  Thanks for the heads up!   -Bo 

JanishaGabriel
JanishaGabriel like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

Bo, what you said above about hegemony, or what we commonly call "white privilege" is spot on.

 

A few things:

 

 I'd like to add though, as a general statement, to the issue of white men or white women commenting on things related to people of color:  it's not just that the opinions may reflect dominate culture, it's also that there hasn't historically been public space for people of color, and in this case, black women, to talk about ourselves without input from white people. And even when someone white has an opinion that may not reflect dominate culture, we need our own safe space to discuss ourselves, under our own terms, without interference, if this makes sense.  In essence, America, and especially the American media, is a safe space for white folks to talk about everything, including talking about people of color.  It has not historically been, and is still not a space for people of color to talk about everything, including ourselves.  Not inserting your opinion into conversations had by POC is also about respecting space.  The world may also be changing in small ways, but for many of us, it remains the same.  The same power dynamic exists.  

 

But alas, this conversation began on Facebook by a white man, merely looking at Beyonce as a woman, and asking about the impact of her sexuality/power.  it wasn't an attempt to talk about black womanhood. But Beyonce's womanhood cannot be separated from her blackness.  If you attempt to separate Beyonce's womanhood apart from her blackness she will inevitably be read as "white," (because whiteness is the default narrative in America.)  I want to also insert that a large number of white feminists, particularly bloggers, who usually champion women claiming and displaying their sexuality, have been ever to quick to call Beyonce a whore, trashy, ghetto, while they exalt Madonna and other white women who do the same thing.  Black female sexuality is always, as I mentioned before, is always interpreted through the white lens as either nonexistent (as in the case of the Mammy) or whoreish and crude (as in the bedwarmer).

 

My challenge to MP is that, your conversation about white men and spectacles needs to be understood from the perspective of black women, because ultimately, if you discuss Beyonce/black woman sexuality without us, you will continue to interpret her through the white gaze.  Allow us to dictate this conversation and challenge what you think is happening. No doubt there are challenges and things that white males need to discuss within themselves, not denying that at all.  But if your point is to challenge your maleness and your whiteness as dominate narratives, how can you do that without conversing with people unlike you, who are at the opposite end of your power structure?

 

Two white men at least, Sean and Bo, read Beyonce differently.  It is possible for men, white men, to view her as a symbol of power and not just sex.

MarshallPease
MarshallPease

@JanishaGabriel

 

Janisha, thanks for your remarks. My point is that there is a symmetry to the situation: just as there is a need for "black women, to talk about ourselves without input from white people" ... and also without the inappropriate/stereotyping input that you get from white culture ... there is a need for white men to talk among themselves without the presence of black women who can be inappropriately theorized about (dissed). That is, the FIRST thing that white men need to talk about is the privilege of butting into whatever conversation is nearest their thumb. We need to learn to talk with each other about ourselves and each other, which is the same thing black women (as you say) need to do, although obviously the bullet points will be different. That is, the conversation is/should be  <i>multivocal</i>, so first we would have to establish/ground the voices.

 

I think Beyonce's performance says more about how white guys think than how black women are ... the point is that white guys don't hear that message and they won't get it just by being lectured to (however appropriately) by black women, since actual black women are largely irrelevant to what they are thinking.

 

Roger Olson posted about feminism a while back (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/10/21/): "Lively debates occur among women about feminism and sex/gender. Can men contribute anything to those discussions?" I tried to point to the tension between "among women" and "men contribute", but Roger called that "sexist" and points to instances of cultural discrimination against males ... "neglected by social welfare agencies", etc. Clearly before Roger is equipped to enter a productive conversation with eg Dianna Anderson, he has some work to do to separate out his own voice. Otherwise it's just more mansplaining.

 

The "anecdote" here concerns black women vis a vis white men, but it's an "example" of any dialog across boundaries. (And if you don't have actual events in the wild to talk about, you're just doing airy theorizing of the mansplaining kind. AND ... well enough for now. ) 

 

JanishaGabriel
JanishaGabriel

 @MarshallPease thanks, and after reading your post with Roger Olson I see where you're coming from more concisely.

 

and also, you dropped  this bombshell: "I think Beyonce's performance says more about how white guys think than how black women are ... the point is that white guys don't hear that message and they won't get it just by being lectured to (however appropriately) by black women, since actual black women are largely irrelevant to what they are thinking."  what a painfully true statement, to the point of being triggering.  as i read that, those words cut in to me, and i'm sitting here with anxiety, my mind racing and thinking about an infinite number of times when i've been silenced, passed over for white kids/adults in any number of situations...which all comes from being considered irrelevant.  ugh.  these things don't just affect one's social ordering but their emotional health also.  my goodness.

 

i wonder what has come of Roger and that conversation?  your points were spot on, things that needed to be said.

danhauge
danhauge

 @JanishaGabriel

 Yeah--I was just in the middle of trying to comment about how hegemony/white privilege shapes our different experiences in having the conversation, but this pretty much says it all. Thanks :)

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

 @danhauge  @JanishaGabriel Yep.  I think that I will turn off my email notification feature and just think about this one response all morning.  -Bo 

Trackbacks

  1. [...] There has been a general debate in culture and online whether or not Beyonce’s performance at the Super Bowl XLVII was empowering for women or degrading. Was Beyonce’s (and the rest of Destiny’s Child’s) performance A Prophetic Dance Of Power? Or was the concert a mere repeating of when sexism and racism meet at the intersection of U.S. history. Regardless, this seems like an awkward conversation for the Other to Destiny’s Child: The Silent White Guy who wants to comment on Invisible Black Women. [...]